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Firm has concerns of hydro proposal

Published October 05. 2013 09:00AM

A Carbon County whitewater rafting company says a proposed hydroelectric project at the Francis E. Walter Dam, between Bear Creek and Kidder townships, may negatively impact business if it is not operated with outdoor recreation in mind.

The project, as proposed by Mid-Alantic Hydro, LLC in its preliminary permit application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, would consist of an 11-foot diameter steel penstock attached to the existing outlet; a concrete powerhouse on the right descending bank; six megawatt and three megawatt generators; a concrete tailrace to direct flow from the powerhouse back into the Lehigh River, and a half-mile long 12.4-kilovolt transmission line interconnecting with an existing Pennsylvania Power and Light transmission line. The project would generate 26 gigawatt-hours annually.

A motion to intervene was filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington DC, on Sept. 26 by David Brown, executive director of America Outdoors Association, Knoxville, Tenn. on behalf of Whitewater Challengers Inc., White Haven. The motion states that the two entities "are concerned about the impacts on any changes in the current flow regime from the Francis E. Walter project," particularly the impact that it would have on businesses downstream, which includes the tourist town Jim Thorpe.

Whitewater Challengers is dependent on the flow from the dam that is released by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the motion states.

"The stretch of river immediately downstream of the Francis E. Walter project, upon which the applicant for a preliminary permit wants to install hydroelectric generating facilities, is one of the most popular whitewater rafting rivers in the United States with over 108,000 visits (for whitewater rafting and 33,500 for kayaking) recorded in 2012. The number of rivers in the eastern United States with sufficiently reliable flows to support commercial whitewater rafting is very limited ... The Lehigh River is one of three rivers available for commercial whitewater rafting for some portion of the year in the entire state of Pennsylvania," Brown writes.

"Installation of the project may disrupt flows from the dam at times that are critical to the survival of the rafting companies operating below the Francis E. Walter project," Brown continues. "Flow disruptions or unpredictable peaking power operations which are not timed to be consistent with weekday and weekend whitewater recreation pursuits of the public will diminish or eliminate the public's enjoyment of these relatively rare recreation opportunities. Changes in the flow regime after installation of hydropower at the dam may be detrimental to the public's enjoyment of the Lehigh River as a recreation resource, to Whitewater Challengers and the other outfitter members of America Outdoors Association operating below the dam. Those changes would also have significant negative economic impacts in the communities in which the rafting companies are located."

Ken Powley, president and co-founder of Whitewater Challengers, said via phone on Friday that the goal of the motion is to "primarily protect the interests of the park (Lehigh Gorge State Park) and the general public."

"Whitewater boating enthusiasts come here by the hundreds of thousands and the Lehigh really is one of the very few whitewater opportunities within a 200- to 300-mile radius," he said, adding that the reason he asked for the motion to intervene was because this now allows Whitewater Challengers and America Outdoors Association to "be at the table" when it comes to the developer's plans and have input about the impacts the project could have if not done properly.

"Hydro-power is all about when and how you release water to maximize electrical output and use it when it is in the highest demand," he said. "That tends to be on weekdays in the summer and the boating happens on the weekends, so all the water saved in the spring, if released on weekdays, will have a potentially huge impact and that's why we want to have a seat at the table."

Powley noted that in addition to recreation purposes and the local economy, the dam's use in summer months also helps with fish habitats and the overall environment of the area.

The dam collects water throughout the winter and spring months, which is then released during the summer to help keep the river level higher and more stable for fish, boaters and rafters.

Powley pointed out that the Francis E. Walter Dam project over the years changing from a single purpose dam to a dual purpose dam is a "shining example of intergovernmental cooperation" between county, state and federal entities and "the benefits of that have been seen in the number of visitors to the area for whitewater boating, the river is cleaner and healthier than ever and the fish habitat is better. Plus the whitewater industry supports over 1,000 jobs locally. That is what is at risk."

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